I feel I’m getting to know Isaac as I walk the tracks and paths he would have trekked to sell his tea at farmhouses and villages around the Allen Valleys. Now I want to meet people who live on Isaac’s Tea Trail or have an interesting connection with it, starting with a 21st century tea salesman.
165 million cups of tea are drunk every day in Britain. When it was first imported in the seventeenth century it was a drink only for the rich elite, but its popularity grew until by the nineteenth century it was within the budget of most households.
Enter Isaac Holden. In the 1840s he and his wife Ann were running a grocery shop in Allendale and Isaac was selling tea door-to-door. Some of those doors were at very remote farmhouses and isolated hamlets, while others were clustered around the booming centres of the lead mining and smelting industries. The population of the area was the highest it’s ever been – that’s a lot of kettles bubbling away beside a lot of teapots.
Today the houses where Isaac sold his tea can still buy beverages on the doorstep. North East company Ringtons delivers to 105 homes in Isaac’s corner of the North Pennines, and it’s a labour of love for salesman Alex. He sets off at 7am on a round that takes in Whitfield, Catton, Allendale, Sparty Lea, Nenthead and Alston. He then reverses the route and calls in at any houses where the people were out and missed his first visit.
I met Alex at Isaac’s Well in Allendale. Just one of Isaac Holden’s many community projects, it provided clean water which, according to the plaque, not only helped overcome the threat of cholera and typhoid, but also made better-tasting tea.
Compare and contrast – here’s how Isaac made his deliveries:
Illustration ©Marcus Byron
A Newcastle lad, Alex says he fell in love with the North Pennines scenery when he was assigned this Ringtons round, and he quickly got fond of the customers. He’s one of the most smiley and sincere salesmen I’ve ever met, and I can quite believe him when he says he always gets a warm welcome when he arrives carrying his basket of goodies.
“A lot of elderly or disabled people rely on us arriving and they know we’ll get there whatever the weather” he says. He’s having snow tyres fitted to his van soon, and if the roads to the most remote houses are ever totally impassable he’ll leave their order at the post office.
Alex is in awe of Isaac covering a similar area on foot. “It’s pretty unbelievable that he could walk all that way in all weathers, carrying his tea on his back” he says. “It’s possible some of my customers live in houses that Isaac used to visit. We deliver to homes where we’ve sold to at least two generations – we just get passed on from mother to daughter. It’s really rewarding to get to know the families, and the job satisfaction comes from that personal touch.”
I share Alex’s admiration for Isaac, having walked some of the wild routes he would have followed to deliver his tea.
I’m covering the 36-mile circular route Isaac’s Tea Trail in short stages, and eventually it will all come together on the North Pennines AONB website. The project is part of the AONB Partnership’s HLF-funded Allen Valleys Landscape Partnership Scheme.
I imagine Isaac would be pleased that tea is still sold door-to-door on his old patch, but as a Methodist he might have had something to say about Ringtons selling wine as well. And what would Isaac have made of the reindeer cuddly toy in Alex’s basket?